We’re back in my monthly series about small fruits that can be grown sustainably in the Mid-Atlantic and other places with a similar climate. We are in the dormant period for most fruits, meaning fewer to harvest, none to plant, but still plenty to prune and care for, and new plantings to plan for next year. I give links to some useful publications. We have a focus fruit, and then more about others that need attention during the month.
Quinces are the focus fruit for December
Quinces are large yellow aromatic fruits like fuzzy apples, growing on large shrubs. They are ripe when the fruit are golden-yellow and have a good smell. I was taught to wait until they develop a split from top to bottom. They are usually cooked, rarely eaten raw. The easiest way I know to cook them is to bake them whole, until the flesh is soft. This does take a while, but is almost no work. They make delicious jellies and fruit butters.
The Harvest to Table website has a lot of good information on How to Plant, Grow, Prune, and Harvest Quince.
The UK Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) has great info. This thorough website includes a monthly calendar of activities, written for the United Kingdom, where quinces are harvested from September. For comparison when reading British websites, the UK fits in USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 6 through 9. (Remember this scale refers to winter temperatures only, not summers!) The coastal areas are zone 9, most of southern England is zone 8, northern England zone 7 and the central Scottish Highlands are zone 6.
Reasons to grow quince
Quince trees are easy-care, not prone to many peat or disease problems. As well as being productive, they have attractive blossoms in late spring. There are options for spaces of all sizes, and can even be grown in large pots if necessary.
Start harvesting quince fruits in October or November, when they have turned from light yellow to golden yellow and are very aromatic. Leave them on the tree as long as possible to develop their flavor, provided there is no danger of frost. Use pruners to cut fruit from the tree with an inch or two (2-5 centimeters) of stem attached. Handle ripe quinces gently – they are hard but do bruise easily.
Storage of quinces
Only store undamaged fruits. Store quinces in a cool, dry, dark place in shallow trays. Make sure the fruits don’t touch, and don’t wrap them at all. Allow the quinces to mature for 6-8 weeks before cooking. You may want to keep quinces away from apples and pears as the aroma can spread to other fruits. See the Special Topic for December below.
Quince fruit storage problems
Fruit in storage needs to be monitored for rots and disorders. Fungal diseases usually attack damaged fruit and are worse in poor ventilation. Clean your storage spaces and containers thoroughly each summer to reduce the risk of brown rot.
Discoloration is not always caused by rots; some disorders appear in storage too.
- Scald: Dark blotches resulting from gases emitted from the fruit.
- Bitter pit: dry, brown sunken spots which appear during storage. Like water core, it is related to insufficient calcium during growth.
- Core flush (pink or brown flesh around the core): usually the result of carbon dioxide build-up, if ventilation is poor (common in apples stored in plastic bags).
- Water core: a disorder giving flesh a glassy appearance. It is caused by sap accumulating in the gaps between the fruit cells. It may disappear during storage, or it may get worse, leading to browning and the breakdown of flesh.
- Internal browning: Pears and quinces are prone to this disorder that is found at harvest time or may develop during storage. It can be caused by environmental conditions during fruit development, poor storage conditions or internal rots.
- Shriveling: caused by high temperatures or a lack of humidity, or both. If necessary, damp down the floor occasionally to maintain a moist atmosphere, or lay damp burlap over the fruit.
Choosing quince trees
Quince trees (Cydonia oblonga) come in many shapes and sizes, to suit all gardens. You can buy large spreading trees for attractive specimen trees in an open space, or half standards that suit smaller gardens. Compact forms grow well in large containers. An 18in (45cm) container is the smallest feasible, and 2ft (60cm) would be best. To keep quince bushes small, prune the top and roots each winter.
Quince trees reach a height and spread of 12–16ft (3.75–5m), depending on the rootstock, site, and soil type. Quince trees can be bought as grafted plants, on ‘Quince A’ (semi-dwarfing) or ‘Quince C’ (dwarfing) rootstock, or on their own roots, and are best bought as two-year-old trees with the first branches already formed.
Quince trees do not need a second tree to pollinate them. They are self-fertile and usually start bearing fruit when 3-6 years old.
- Serbian Gold is a very good cropping quince with a good resistance to leaf blight. The fruits can be large and often apple shaped.
- Champion is greenish-yellow, with tender flesh and a delicate flavor.
- Cooke’s Jumbo is a large, yellowish-green fruit with white flesh, 6-8” (15-20cm) in diameter.
- Orange, and Apple both have orange-yellow flesh, smooth golden skin and rich flavor, with high aroma.
- Pineapple has white flesh and smooth yellow skin and a slight pineapple flavor.
- Smyrna has large fruit with light yellow flesh and tender lemon-yellow skin.
Consult your Extension Service and local plant nurseries for which kinds do best in your area. Prices can vary widely, and quality may vary too. The Harvest to Table site has good variety descriptions.
Quinces are often confused with the shrub Chaenomeles (Japanese quince), the fruit of which is also edible (but small).
Where to plant quinces
Quinces tolerate a range of soils, but do best in a deep, fertile, moisture-retaining soil. They grow well when near ponds and streams, but will not do well if waterlogged. Add plenty of organic matter to light or shallow chalky soils before planting and mulch well afterwards.
Although hardy, quinces need a warm, sunny, sheltered spot, as the flowers open early and are susceptible to frost, and also, good sun exposure is needed for the fruit to ripen. Avoid planting in frost-pockets. In zones 8-9 they can be grown in the open. But further north or in colder or exposed sites, they are best planted in a sheltered spot, such as against a south- or south-west-facing wall.
How to plant quinces
Plant quince trees between November and March, while they are dormant. If planting more than one, bush trees should be spaced about 12ft (3.5m) apart, and half-standards about 15ft (4.5m) apart. Stake the trees for the first 3-4 years. See the RHS step-by-step guides for full planting details.
Care of quince trees
Quinces flower early in the year, so if frost is forecast during bloom, protect the blossom on smaller trees with rowcover or burlap, removing it during the day to allow pollinating insects access to the flowers.
Feed quinces in early spring before growth starts. Avoid overfeeding if fire blight can be a problem in your area, as lush new leafy growth is susceptible to this bacterial disease, Erwinia amylovora.
Propagation of quince trees
There are several methods of propagating quince, including budding (chip and T-budding), grafting, hardwood cuttings and layering of low branches, and by removing suckers. Root cuttings are also possible for ungrafted trees.
Pruning quince trees
Quinces fruit mostly on the tips of the shoots that grew the previous year, with few fruiting spurs. Prune quinces in winter during dormancy. Remove dead, diseased, dying or damaged branches, and any congested or spindly ones. Maintain well-spaced branches on a single stem, removing surplus branches as they grow. Once established, only light pruning is needed, apart from the removal of any crowded or low branches. The branch framework should be along the same lines as for tip-bearing apple trees.
For good crops, prune every winter, thinning out to improve light and air reaching the center. Remove no more than a quarter of the oldest branches, cutting back to the point of origin or to a shoot that is one-third of the diameter of the branch being removed. Prune out crowded branches, very vigorous shoots and spindly branches. If side shoots are less than 9” (23 cm) long, they can be left unpruned to bear flowers and fruit at the end of the growth the next season. Longer side shoots should be pruned back to about 6” (15 cm) long. Head back drooping and leggy branches. Remove any suckers around the base, and prune off any unwanted shoots on the main stem.
Black knots on branches and trunks are natural and should not be removed.
Quince fruits are not usually thinned unless there is an over-heavy crop that threatens to break the branches.
Common problems of quince trees
- Many of the insect pests that attack apples and pears, including codling moth and winter moth caterpillars, also attack quinces, but rarely cause serious problems.
The caterpillar of the codling moth can burrow into quinces in summer, leaving fruit ridden with tunnels and frass. You can hang pheromone traps in the branches of trees in May to lure and trap the male moths, disrupting mating. You can spray a biological control on the fruit and the soil around the trees in the fall to kill caterpillars leaving the fruit.
- Fire blight is a serious bacterial disease that infects plants through their flowers. It is spread by splashing of rain or irrigation water. Cut out infected shoots (with a margin for safety) and burn them or put them in the trash.
- Brown rot is a fungal disease causing fruit to brown and rot in patches. Attacks are worse in wet weather. Remove and destroy all infected fruit, and prune out branches that have become infected.
- Powdery mildew is another fungal disease. It shows as a white powdery coating on the leaves. Remove and destroy infected leaves. Milk sprays can be effective.
Quince leaf blight is a fungal leaf spot disease, showing as red-brown spots on leaves which then wither and die. Fruit may be spotted and distorted. Prune out affected leaves and stems and destroy them.
Rake up and dispose of affected leaves in the fall to prevent the disease overwintering. Prune out any dead shoots in the dormant season. Feed and water plants well to encourage more leaf growth.
Rots may develop where fruit cracks or splits if a drought period is followed by heavy rain.
- This information comes from Harvest to Table and the UK RHS, who have good photos of quince problems and suggestions on what to do.
Other small fruits still available in December
Persimmons – we have a banner year!
Dried and frozen fruits, jams, jellies, chutneys, other preserves.
Stored apples and pears.
Wintergreen is a frequently overlooked native wild fruit. The tiny berries often persist through the winter (I guess they’re not too popular with wildlife. . .)
Frozen medlars can be eaten when picked from the tree
Other fruit care in December in the mid-Atlantic
Cut fall raspberry canes to the ground after the leaves have dropped. Weed raspberries.
In colder areas, you may cover strawberries with hoops, polypropylene rowcover or slitted plastic and clips. Weight down the edges with sticks, rocks or sandbags.
Read books: See my reviews of Levy and Serrano Cold-hardy fruit and nuts, and Blake Cothron’s Berry Grower. The RHS recommends Harvesting and storing garden fruit by Raymond Bush (Faber and Faber 1947, ISBN 54053000473672). Plan more fruit and place orders for delivery after the coldest part of winter.
Special Topic for December: Fruit storage
If handled carefully and stored in suitable conditions, fruit from your garden will store for weeks, or even months.
For comparison with other stored fruits:
- Quinces will keep for 2-3 months, after maturing.
- Mid-season apples keep for 4-8 weeks
- Late season apples need to mature for 4-5 weeks and can then last several months
- Pears will store between 2 weeks and 3 months, depending on storage conditions
For example, varieties that store well includes:
- Dessert apples: Cameo, Crispin, Fuji, Gala, Golden Delicious, Goldrush, Granny Smith, Honeycrisp, Idared, Jonagold, Macintosh, Pink Lady, Red Delicious, Rome, Winston. There is a long list of other less well-known storing apples here.
- Cooking apples: Bramley’s Seedling, Cortland, Lane’s Prince Albert. Also see the Washington State Extension list here.
- Dessert pears: Bartlett, Conference (needs maturing after picking) and Doyenne du Comice (also needs after-ripening)
- Cooking pear: Catillac
Suitable storage places include basements, garages, or sheds, if they are:
- cool, with a temperature of 37-45°F (2.8-7°C) for apples and, if possible, cooler for pears (pears can be stored in a fridge salad compartment).
- frost free
- slightly humid
- free from rodents
Five steps to storing fruit (from the RHS)
- Gather containers such as crates, slatted shelves, papier-mâché trays or shallow wooden or cardboard boxes. Ideal containers allow good air movement through the sides and over the top.
- Select undamaged, medium-sized fruits, ideally with their stalk intact. Those picked just under-ripe usually store best
- Lay the fruit in a single layer not touching each other. Place fruit gently to avoid bruising. If necessary, apples can be stacked on top of each other.
- Keep different cultivars (varieties) separate as they ripen at different rates. Ideally, keep mid-season cultivars away from late-season ones so that they do not speed up ripening. Likewise, do not store fruit planned to keep a long time near any produce that is sprouting or rotting. They emit ethylene which speeds up ripening.
- Label the boxes. Keep fruit away from strong scents that may taint them such as paint, and onions. Quince have a very pungent smell and are best kept away from other fruit
Check stored fruit regularly:
- Pears can ripen and pass their best quickly so check daily. In warm conditions they will soften slightly when ripe but, in cooler storage, ripeness will be indicated by a subtle change in color and they’ll then be ready to bring into the kitchen for a day or two to soften before eating
- When one tray of fruit is reaching optimum ripeness, remove it from storage promptly as the ethylene released may speed up the ripening of the remaining fruit in storage
- Discard any fruit that show signs of rot to prevent disease spreading
Wrapping apples individually in newspaper or tissue paper can help them keep longer but will slow down the task of regular inspection.
If no suitable storage conditions are available, small quantities of apples can be put in plastic bags in the fridge to store for a few weeks. Fill a bag with 4.5-7lb (2-3kg) of fruit, pierce several holes in it and fold the top loosely to allow air circulation.
Storing some pears loose in the salad compartment of the fridge can help to delay ripening until after those in storage have been used.